Tver: A line of supporters wound round the room to snap a selfie with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who looked exhausted but summoned up a smile and hug for each one.
The 41-year-old, whose anti-corruption videos have needled the country’s most powerful and drawn a new generation into politics, is bidding to stand in elections against President Vladimir Putin next year.
While Putin has yet to confirm his candidacy for the March 2018 polls, chief critic Navalny is already on a whistlestop tour of Russia, opening campaign offices and trying to collect the 300,000 signatures needed to enter the race — despite doubts he’ll be allowed to stand.
In the city of Tver on the Volga River, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Moscow, Navalny met several hundred supporters.
“We can win these elections,” he told the crowd. “We can win because the majority are for us.”
Navalny’s right eye was still half-closed as he spoke. He is recovering after an assailant threw green dye in his face in April, the latest in a series of physical attacks.
He had medical treatment in Spain and now seems to have security. Two large men stood nearby as Navalny spoke, insisting he will “say obvious banal things, but not be afraid and say them out loud”.
“Tens of millions of our fellow countrymen are destitute while the state is colossally rich,” he declared, slamming low local wages.
Since rising to prominence with his fiery speeches protesting Putin’s third term in power in 2012, Navalny has cemented his place as Russia’s top opposition leader.
But the populist politician faces overwhelming odds in his David and Goliath struggle against the Kremlin and stands almost no chance of ousting Putin.
Shown on state television only in a negative light, Navalny uses YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to get his message out, as well as public speaking, at which the lawyer excels.
He has faced constant hurdles and harassment as he pushes for the presidency — including repeated assaults like the one that damaged his eye.
Earlier this year he was handed a suspended sentence on corruption charges that could legally bar him from running.
It was the latest in a stream of court cases — one of which saw his brother jailed — that supporters say are designed by the Kremlin to cripple any campaign.
“We can only force them to register me,” he said, insisting he is going to fight the authorities to run. “It’s clear as day Putin doesn’t want to come out to debate with me.”
In the meantime he is causing serious headaches for the government.
In March he drew thousands onto the streets in the biggest wave of protests in years with an online video accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption that was viewed over 22 million times.
Despite a harsh police crackdown that saw Navalny among 1,000 people detained in Moscow, fresh demonstrations are planned for Monday.
Chief among those rallying to Navalny are teenagers and students from a younger generation that knows only Putin’s rule.
“I want to live in a free country, I want a free press and freedom of speech,” says 20-year-old journalism student Ilya in Tver.
“Personally I don’t think they’ll let him stand unfortunately and I’m very bitter about this,” said volunteer Maxim Laptev, 24, at the same meeting.
Sergei, a 20-year-old student working for Navalny’s Moscow campaign, said he wonders how he carries on.
“He’s very cheerful even though his brother is in jail and there are constant searches at his home. To be honest, I don’t really understand it,” he said.
– Changing views –
Navalny has run electoral campaigns before, harnessing popular discontent to finish second in the Moscow mayoral poll in 2013.
But his views have troubled some liberals.
Controversially, he has appeared at rallies with neo-Nazis in the past, and vowed to restrict immigration from mainly Muslim ex-Soviet Central Asia, calling “Islamism” the greatest threat to Russia.
“When we first met he was a moderate Russian nationalist,” says rights campaigner Olga Romanova, who has known Navalny for years, likening him to France’s Marine Le Pen.
But now Romanova says his views “have changed rather seriously” and Navalny has become a “moderate conservative”.
At the Moscow campaign office there is a youthful vibe and someone strums a ukelele at one point.
The owners of the premises, however, are attempting to evict Navalny’s team, tearing down the sign, replacing locks and cutting off electricity in a move blamed on the authorities.
But his supporters insist they won’t be deterred.
“It’s obvious they put pressure on the owner and said ‘Get rid of them any way you can’,” said Moscow campaign chief Nikolai Lyaskin.
“We aren’t going to leave. We’ll stay here all the time.”
© Agence France-Presse